The American writer Nicole Krauss won many admirers with her second, much-feted novel, The History of Love, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction the following year. However, fans may be disappointed by her third, Great House, though the books share many formal and thematic features. Both juggle multiple narrators, often from different generations and settings, as they try to make sense of something painful from the past, be it a lost love or a death march to Germany during the Second World War.
In The History of Love, Krauss managed to make this exercise fun. Characters prepare for the end of the world by buying sleeping bags. They joke about man-breasts. This is not the case in Great House, where questions of memory and legacy are handled by a unanimously moody and depressed bunch. If history is a rat gnawing through the floorboards, the charming characters in the earlier novel would undoubtedly haul out a vibrant display of brooms and contraptions to fight off the creature. Not so in Great House, whose inhabitants would probably just shrug. Holes in this old house exist, they might say. Infestation is only natural.
This tonal shift is not necessarily a bad thing. Although The History of Love dazzles, Great House may be the braver, more honest work.
It begins with Nadia, the first of the novel's four primary narrators, recounting a one-night stand she had with Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet later killed by Pinochet's secret police. Through a concatenation of random events, Nadia inherits from him a desk that ultimately connects all the characters. Among them are Arthur Bender and his intensely private wife, Lotte, who escaped from Germany during the war by chaperoning the children on a Kindertransport to London, knowing that her parents would be killed after she left.
Then there are Yoav and Leah, children of the mysterious George Weisz, who specialises in reclaiming furniture looted by the Nazis.
Finally, there is Aaron, an angry, recently widowed man desperately attempting to connect with his son Dov. His relationship to the desk is the most indirect and the most distressing.
The details of the shifting plot are largely incidental, even slightly distracting, but the characters are the book's saving grace. At bottom, Great House is a study of the fragility of people facing extreme, often inherited suffering. Arthur says of Lotte's decision to use her chaperone's visa to effect her flight from Germany:
Of course it would have been unimaginable not to take it and go. But it must have been equally unimaginable to leave her parents. I don't think Lotte ever forgave herself for it. I always believed it was her only real regret in life, but a regret of such vast proportions that it couldn't be dealt with straight on.
The characters in Great House are routinely up against such walls, awash with grief over their inability to understand something or someone. In a lesser work, situations of the sort could easily start to feel hackneyed, but Krauss never lets this happen. Instead, the book enacts, in its patient pace and concentrated text, the slow, draining nature of sadness, and conveys a touching respect for human weakness. Explaining why he feels no guilt about sometimes substituting a forgery for his clients' old, probably long-destroyed furniture, Weisz says: "Because he needs it to be that bed where she once lay with him more than he needs to know the truth."
The History of Love is undoubtedly the more enjoyable novel of the two. And yet, at a time when market pressures demand that new books be both funny and heart-rending, featuring characters who suffer and prevail, it is encouraging to come across writing that does not try to distract the reader from realising that death marches, the Kindertransport and the attentions of the secret police do something to a person, and those who love them. As Arthur says, "The secrets of the dead have a viral quality, and find a way to keep themselves alive in another host." These secrets have found a worthy home in Great House. l
Ashley Sayeau is an American writer living in London. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post and Dissent magazine and on salon.com